Our Ely visit started perfectly — on a bench in the sun, with a lovely view of the cathedral’s West tower (see featured image). Rosie, the trainee at King’s Ely school, offered us a quick summary of how the school works: it’s a coeducational independent day and boarding school. Its buildings are spread throughout the centre of Ely, its library at the top of a tower in the Ely Porta (once the Bishop’s prison).
After making our way up the narrow spiral staircase, we were welcomed by Inga, the librarian at King’s Ely, who gave us a tour of the library. The unanimous reaction was a murmur of awe — spread out on two floors, with large Gothic windows and cosy slanted ceilings, it was the library space all of us wished we’d had during our school years. Clearly the utmost efforts had been made to attract students to the library, to emphasise the value of reading and provide the best possible space for study as well as leisure reading. There were motivational quotes on the walls – but rather than generic positive messages, they were tailored to this specific generation and the cultural references they’re most likely to respond to.
The books – ranging from basic ‘How To’s to young adult fiction, from Cambridge Companions to inspirational biographies – were curated in what may be my favourite displays so far. Each little nook (all of them Rosie’s work) by the arched Gothic windows had its own theme, carefully selected to appeal to previous interests of students while bringing new ideas for them to consider. Books were accompanied by posters, cards, and occasionally even little ‘artefacts’, such as a display of magic potions in jars, put together after a library Harry Potter event. Pictured, the rainbow-coloured LGBT reading nook.
The tour ended with Inga and Rosie explaining more about how the library is involved in students’ day-to-day life and education, while we sipped on tea and munched on cookies. I was already amazed by how much the library does to promote reading – my own school library was a grey room with dusty shelves – but found out that this is by no means limited to the physical space. Technology is also a big part of the way they connect with students – the library has many computers for students, a QR code to scan with your phone for the library catalogue, and offers ebooks and ejournals (although access levels are low for the latter). They also offer training EPQs – the Extended Project Qualification, which requires a student to carry out extensive research on a topic of their choice and produce a written report. From what I understood (having never heard of EPQs before), the librarian is their main guide throughout this project, and I was happy to hear that skills such as researching, writing and structuring an extended piece of work, or referencing are finally taught and valued. Too often these skills seem invisible compared with more ‘traditional’ skills, like knowing the quadratic formula or knowing how to drive, but we all agreed that they’re essential for students wanting to do a university degree.
From King’s Ely, we walked to the Ely Public Library. Part of the Cambridgeshire public libraries, it looks and functions a lot like the Cambridge Central Library, which I’ve written about here. However, for what are probably complex social and economic reasons (among them, I would guess, the fact that Cambridge is a university town and Ely isn’t), two things stood out. One, that the Ely library has been put under a much bigger strain by recent library cuts. Two, that its passionate staff are doing their very, very best to still offer their community everything it needs.
The marks of this community involvement were everywhere. We started our tour in the children’s section, well-stocked and, we were told, also constantly updated to match young readers’ preferences. It was decorated with wonderful paintings of eels (which is where the city’s name comes from) and papier-mâché ships made by children. The rest of the book collection was impressive, although similar in selection to the Cambridge one — minus a special Ely Cathedral collection. But it is the work behind this collection that is truly worth talking about. Faced with budget cuts, and with the prospect of more cuts in the future, the library is currently undertaking an extensive ‘resilience’ programme, where rather than offering short-term help to Ely residents, they teach them ‘how to help themselves’. There is a section of books and leaflets on mental health, especially for teenagers; the local GPs will occasionally ‘prescribe’ some of these. There is a delivery service for users who are unable to come to the library themselves. There is a ‘Tea and tablets’ weekly meeting, to teach the elderly – with tea and patience – how to use a tablet, a computer, a smartphone. There are reading competitions and challenges to encourage reading from a young age, and there are three-dimensional paintings for people who are partially-sighted or blind to enjoy. There are groups to help people with their CVs and job applications, to order a concessionary bus pass, to apply for benefits.
I was shocked to find out that the last two can now be only done online; considering they concern a demographic that is probably the least likely to have access to a computer, the library can be invaluable for some people. Both libraries we visited were incredibly well integrated in, and tailored to the needs of, the communities they serve, but you couldn’t help but notice the stark difference between King’s Ely, where the library has sufficient funds to maintain its excellent service, and the Ely Public Library, which seems to sit on a shrinking patch of land – and yet manages to offer such thorough multi-dimensional support to whoever needs it.